Morocco, March 2015 -
I inhaled a sharp breath and masked the bandana over my mouth. The damp cloth, sodden by my exhales, suffocated me in its warm musk. The wind slammed me into the side of the files of trucks as I stretched my stride over thigh-high drifts. Whiteout.
Not how you imagined Africa, huh kid?
Let’s begin four days prior to soaked clothes and hungry stomachs.
Samm and I packed up, yet again, eager for the sequel to our last summer we spent backpacking in Turkey — a reunion with friends and, hopefully, a road trip to remember. We welcomed Casablanca with ambition and optimism, but were on the receiving end of the contrary. Within the first few steps out the door, I was nearly swallowed waist-deep in a hole gaping in the sidewalk… No sympathy, only scoffs from the huddles of men simpering at the two young girls, too eager to seize the Moroccan sun.
Wandering around Casablanca as self-identified insomniacs involved us stumbling through narrow corridors and getting lost in mazes of putrid odors. Perhaps all the kitten pics don’t paint an accurate picture of the misogyny we found within this city, but our mere existence within this ‘dirtball’ of West Africa was violated as we felt equally filthy visualizations penetrating our direction.
We came across what seemed to be a political procession. Hundreds of red rugs blanketed the sidewalks and bled warmth onto the otherwise industrialized rubble. Guards stood on rooftops and hawked their gaze upon us while men in doorways snarled, groping themselves as we passed by… “Did you notice that? Every time.
Nearly everything seemed to have been tainted with life’s disdain, a literal and figurative disrespect for cleanliness.
Maybe it was the uninvited presence of my camera?
Maybe it was her red hair?
Maybe… it was just us.
The day passed lethargically but two familiar voices had us leaping up bright and early the next morning. We cracked the door with arms wide open to embrace our beloved Turks, straight in from Istanbul . Ahmet and Talip first appeared in our lives last summer when Samm and I took our first stab at hitchhiking along the Western coast of Turkey. Needless to say, we got really lucky and we’ve been friends ever since.
Strapped in the seats of our rental car, our Moroccan roadie was underway!
Chefchaouen is a cross-cultural pollination of Andalusia and Côte d’Azur. Being in an Islamic country means that alcohol is inevitably scarce so the chase for a night out restlessly brought us to the one and only hotel lobby bar. Within the first ten awkward minutes of bar leaning, we corralled an American-English eaves-dropper turned adventure comrade — John. John was the co-founder of The Escape Artist, a traveling quad of filmmakers navigating the same route we had planned for our Moroccan adventure.
One long bar-story short, John needed to film Americans so we exchanged info and met up the next morning to meet the rest of his crew. These guys traveled well and came uncensored with no hesitancy to exude their lighthearted American spirit. We spent the morning filming under drizzling clouds and enjoying fresh company. Little did we know how integral these guys would become in the trajectory of the days ahead...
Upon a rainy evening in Fes, we devised a plan to follow John’s van from Fes to Merzouga. A journey that should have taken approximately eight hours... But, this is what brings me back to the unraveled beginning. Stranded, somewhere, high in the Atlas Mountains.
Stuck in a snowstorm in Africa. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d have to say.
I looked down at my feet and felt what should have been misery transform into determination and excitement. Nothing excites me more than the rush of putting myself to the test. Thrill, as we say.
The powdery precipitation had us consumed by the paradoxical thoughts of Africa...where the weather is always warm and the giraffes are always roaming…right? Wrong.
The start of the storm was all smiles and sighs, snow monkeys lined the roadways and it was such pretty snow. We had a quick foreshadow of events when we lost control of our car and smoothly spun into the ditch. It was nearly poetic, just how peacefully we slid off the pavement. The storm hit so quickly that traffic soon came to a standstill. I was piggybacked to the gas station where we stocked up on the best offer of Mars bars and espresso. Little to our optimism did we know that this was the last meal of the day, let alone... the last meal for a while.
Traffic commenced; up and up we went until we could go up no more. An hour or so went by and we lost sight of their van — a speck of dust painted in a white canvas of the Atlas tundra. We watched the hours go by as we stared at ice crystallizing on our windows. Thirsty for answers and desperate for contact, Samm and I prepped ourselves to find John and his crew.
I zipped up my hoodie, looked down at my bare ankles, took a breath and tied the bandana. I locked my gaze on the blurred taillights ahead and tossed my head towards every car. I glanced back and saw Samm kiting behind me, red hair tangled under her babushka-like shawl as we sprawled over the snow banks at what felt like lightening speed.
A blue bumpersticker gave away their van and we charged towards the door and knocked the ice from their windows. Their expressions gave away their shock of seeing us, but as they learned, we take fearlessness very seriously.
We hopped in and stretched ourselves across their laps. It was a full house and we leaned on good ‘ol American sarcasm to ease the tension of our snowy situation. We thawed our wind-whipped ankles just enough before lacing up to brave the winds back to our boys.
At this point, the cars were iced into petrified fossils and the only distinguishable signs of life came in the form of warm bottles of urine scattered outside of the snow-shrouded cars.
By the time we found our vehicle and had given the guys a good scare, the sun was barely illuminating the grey sky. It was getting colder by the minute and to make things worse, our warmest clothes were now soaking wet.
There we were, four friends, shuddering, at the mercy of the mountains. We were not prepared for weather of any extremes and our wet clothes were now stealing more energy than they were preserving. Finally, all the years of being a nerdy tomboy watching Man vs Wild finally paid off. We took off our pants, unfolded all of our clothing from our backpacks, and draped the layers of t-shirts and jeans over our coiled bodies.
Radiating tendrils of steam rose from our limbs, condensed on the windows, and dripped down the glass — sympathetic tears.
Last week, I woke up not wanting to go to work...This week, I’ll wake up happy if I don’t freeze in Unknown, Africa. Perspective.
We passed the time telling some stories to look at the sunny side of things. Honestly, I was having a blast. Did I want to sleep there? No. Was I glad that we were going to? Of course.
We reflected on childhood and had a howl of laughs. I’m still dying at the image burned into my mind of Talip’s underwear on Ahmet’s head. Little did these guys know, when they met us 6 months ago, that the second we got in their car, their lives would go up in flames, and now...ice.
Our giggles dwindled and we drifted off into interrupted sleeps. Time was of no calculation. We all became hyper aware yet simultaneously numb to our needs.
I’d wake up now and then, wondering how long I had been asleep or even if I had been asleep at all... I’d jolt upright at the roar of engines outside, press my face against the window and hope to discern a figure through the sheets of ice, but, time after time, only darkness and the wind.
Morocco has all sorts of mirages.
I woke to the crackle of foil and the glimmer of gold refracting against the ceiling. Crinkled patterns illuminated our tired eyes and indiscernible voices echoed around our car.
It was like a sculpture — our car — encased in a block of marble-like snow. The workers were artists, chipping and carving until the vehicle was revealed, road-ready at last.
Except for one minor detail: the masterpiece wouldn’t start. We needed evacuation plan B so we made emergency calls to our rental car company and managed to hop in the back of a jeep en route to where there would be “food and water....” We left our car in its burrowed place and backtracked to town where we found ourselves, yet again, at the gas station from the day before. Breakfast was nothing less than of champions: Pringles and milk chocolate. Lots of milk chocolate.
We began attracting quite a crowd and herds of men began flocking to the Barrier Niege (“Snow Barrier”) to take a swing at helping the English-speaking travelers. The local police empathized with our situation and made a small fire inside their barrier shelter where they suggested we rest. A local mechanic agreed to fix our car for 400 dirham (40 USD) so we squeezed in with another townie and headed back up the mountain.
The car was where we left it and off to work he went. Samm and I gathered all of our wet clothes and sorted our belongings while Talip and Ahmet minded the mechanic. The problem was that our fuel had frozen over and needed to be warmed before the engine would stay running. Our poor little Peugeut 301. Gloveless, and wearing only a thin jacket, This man warmed the fluid by sucking, swishing and spitting it back into the engine...40 minutes later, we were on the road, happy and revved as ever.
We’re still coming for you, Sahara.
We were picked up by a guy named Ari and dune-buggied back into the Erg Chebbi, where we were greeted by the familiar voices of The Escape Artists, kickin’ it around the campfire.
As soon as we arrived, it was as though the blizzard was ages ago… Of all the places we stayed… the hostels, the riads, the car… the desert tents were the nicest accommodations of all.
We were feeling so many things. Tiredness, triumph, awe...and there’s no adjective for just how incredible the stars were that night.
We had a great dinner, swished the local shisha, shot some time-lapses, and kicked it around the bonfire until the early hours. It was everything. We subsided to our tents for two hours of sleep before rising to meet our camels. Serious bucket-list checking happened that day and a dusty collection of blank thoughts swirled aimlessly through my head as we trekked rhythmically up the dunes.
We took a slow morning after, playing in the sun and soaking away our sleeplessness. We were so nonchalant about our close call in the mountains and I couldn’t help but ponder how the contrasts of our experiences were even possible within the span of 24 hours... Just a casual morning in The Sahara.
Next, we were headed to Marrakech, 8 hrs West of Merzouga; our last hoorah of the journey. We drove through Tizi N’ Tichka pass at nightfall, but Samm and I fell sick somewhere along the drive, self-diagnosed as a lethal combination of malnutrition, sun exposure, and exhaustion.
I remember cracking my eyes open and becoming a sardine, squished between two walls of the old medina as Ahmet precariously inched our car through the winding corridors of the walled-city. Barefoot kids and men on bikes slapped our hood as we crept through the maze-like rues. I held my breath as we grazed the fabrics on the street-vendor’s stalls. Fragile and delusional, the stress was invisible under the shield of my scarf, so I returned to my sleepy sanctuary and shut my eyes once again.
Along with the difficulties of navigating yet another bustling city, we turned to our phones to book a hostel on the spot. Mobs of young boys came up to our car, greedy to “help”… They all morphed into insects and I had a hard time deciphering whether their initial assistance was out of cultural courtesy or ulterior motives.
The buzzing rang on in my head as more and more lazy-eyed boys hatched in; the gang multiplied in both numbers and menace. Swarm.
Being unable to banter back swept a sense of hopelessness over us as we were left to fend off the manipulative daggers of the “CRZY Boy” gang– a territorial tag sprayed on all of our surroundings and visual cue for caution. The boys pressed us for coins, smokes, or anything we could present. The counter-balance of their multi-substance inebriation caught Samm’s attention and threatened our success for an invulnerable entry into the medina. Ready for our confrontations to lead to a quarrel, we entered the labyrinth en guard. The deserted alleys ways were dim and disorienting. Every wall was of the same hue and sporadic pale illumination highlighted sporadic doorways. Eerie on either end, we feared being exposed prisoners passing through their tagged hood, unprotected captives of the Marrakech night gang.
As if to challenge our early opinions of Marrakech, the blue sky sang a bright morning song. If the blizzard didn’t kill us, maybe Marrakech would. First impressions aside, our anti-welcome turned around quite quickly — what was previously an ominously sinuous trap bloomed into a miraculously winding quartier.
It took all but about 10 minutes of weaving ourselves into the illuminated Citadel for our cynicism to wear away under the soles of our sandals. We ooo-ed at the lustrous kingdom of Marrakech.
The imperial sandstone opened to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square and heart of the city, pulsing with life — spotted with spice stands, dancing snakes, and orange juice as far as the eye could see, fresh for 40 cents! Heaven! We spent the day just enjoying our existence within in this mecca of Morocco.
Every city has a color. Marrakech was peach. The plaster framed the commotion as a wondrous art piece — foreground, middleground, and background — a trifecta — each part equally as magnificent. Bamboo stalks in hand, we traversed the town and witnessed the display of the sunset, as if mirroring the city straight onto the alabaster Atlas range, our dusky desolate friend in the distance. We departed on high vibes and a quick snack-filled drive brought us back to the beginning…the rubble-covered beaches of Casablanca.
I do have to say, beginning and ending in Casablanca added an undeniable irony to our story. Everything came full circle and the memories of this trip were so saturated that regardless to our return to grimy Casablanca, we were happy. It’s amazing all that can happen in 10 days. We loved Morocco. We’ll always have our slew of stories and jokes, especially from that night in the mountains…and as I sit here across the Atlantic, flipping through my rippled notebook and playing it all back, I can whole-heartedly say that this, that, here, there, somewhere, anywhere — stuck in the Atlas, dancing in the Sahara, hiding out in Casablanca… that’s what “it” is all about.
It’s that delicate line between reality and fiction, that’s where I want to live my life. And with good company and this wonderful world… it’s where I, we, always will.
To Morocco, “Shukran” -
(Springer / New York, NY / April, 2015)